Salvador Dali believed that Christ of St John of the Cross was his religious masterpiece. It is influenced by a sketch found in the spiritual diaries of the Spanish Mystic and Carmelite, Juan de Yepes y Álvarez who became known as John of the Cross. A sketch in his spiritual diaries of a vision he had received, made a great impression on Dali – he described the image as being ‘like a Crucifix presented to the lips of a dying man’ . When Dali came to paint the image he used a Hollywood Stuntman, Russel Saunders as the model for Christ – and actually strapped his body to a gantry to help Dali envisage the pull of gravity on the Human Body.
In 1948 Dali had returned to Spain after the war, he had rediscovered his Catholic Faith and visited Pope Pius XII in Rome where he sought and was given approval for his new religious themes. He had studied Nuclear Physics and felt that the discovery of the atomic nature of the universe was proof of the existence of God. This mix of science and religion would lead to a new Nuclear Mysticism according to Dali and in 1951 he published his Mystical Manifesto stating his ambition to paint a new type of Crucifixion. Paintings of the crucified Christ had focused on the pain and humiliation of the Crucifixion- however Dali said in his manifesto ‘ I want my next Christ to be the painting containing the most beauty and joy, more than anything that will have been painted up to the present.’ It is worth noting that unusually for paintings of Christ on the Cross – it is devoid of pain, blood and the crown of thorns. Dali associated the nucleus of the atom with Christ and was influenced by the ideas of the mathematician Luca Pacioli – paying attention to the triangle formed by Christs arms and the cross.
The background to the Painting is Port Lligat – the area of the Catalonian coast were Dali lived for most of the latter part of his life. This is a reference to the universal relevance the Crucifixion, its historical significance and supra-historical effects. When we celebrate the mass we believe that we cut through time and space as we are united with the one eternal sacrifice of Christ on Golgotha, we are not just remembering or ‘re-enacting’ his last supper. So by placing Christ against the background of his home, Dali is performing what would be called in Jesuit spirituality a Composition of Place. The crucifixion of Christ is as relevant here and now, in 1950’s Spain or in 21st Century Manchester as it was 2 millenia ago in Palestine.
It is also worth reflecting on the beauty of the male image. In Dali’s own words – The metaphysical Beauty of the Christ-God and make his Christ ‘as beautiful as the God that he is’. Christian Theology has often been interested in the tension between the ‘Theology of the Cross’ and the ‘Theology of Glory’ . Christ on the Cross is one of the most powerful images in human culture, but for Christians it represents the wisdom of God and the self-abandoning love of Christ. Seen through the eyes of faith the cross presents unique insight into who God is and how he chooses to save. Seen through the eyes of the world the cross is a brutal, humiliating public form of torture or capital punishment. Because of this St Paul talks of ‘the scandal of the cross’ – a stumbling block to the wise. Usually Christian iconography – especially in Spain – focuses on Christs suffering in order to elicit feelings of devotion in the believer. A danger of an exaggerated Theology of the Cross is to see creation as irrevocably fallen, The Theology of Glory on the other hand would see creation as essentially good and have an eschatological focus on the resurrection and ultimate victory of good. Perhaps Dalis – new type of Crucifixion is an attempt to marry the two.
Paintings Reception & Impact
When a Scottish Art Historian, Dr Honeyman, acquired the painting for the Glasgow Art Gallery – students at the Glasgow School of Art and members of the Church of Scotland vehemently protested its purchase. For some it was a waste of money and should have been spent on contemporary Scottish painters, for others it was blasphemous and encouraged idol worship. The public however flocked to it and it was observed how men would instinctively take their hats of viewing it and boisterous school groups fall silent in its presence. It has recently been voted Scotland’s favourite painting and is now by far the most valuable painting in the collection – a wise investment!
There is a fascinating 28min documentary about in on the Radio 4 Website